Hippopotamuses are a very old species, believed to be on Earth since 55 million years ago. Fossils have been found in Africa dating back to 16 million years ago. There are only two living species of hippos today, but remains have been found of three other extinct hippo species, one of which have gone extinct relatively recently, about 1000 years ago. Scientists believe that there have been more species but haven’t found evidence of any yet.
One place where there is a fossil record is New England, surprisingly. As there are no hippos in or around New England today, this discovery begs many questions. Why did hippos come to the New England area in the first place? Was the environment more habitable to them then and so moving there was a natural extension of their habitat, and then later changes occurred that made the place uninhabitable for them after they were well established? Or maybe their environment was going through a scarcity in food and so they traveled away looking for somewhere more hospitable, but couldn’t survive in New England and died out there. Or perhaps they traveled through the area and settled in another location past there. The answer to all these questions is still unknown but it is fun to think about all the possibilities.
It is thought that millions of years ago, hippos used to be only land-dwelling animals who used forests in Africa to protect their sensitive skin from the sun. They would be largely hairless because of the warm climate. Later, because of the changing climate in Africa, the forests dwindled away and hippos were forced to turn to the water to protect themselves from the sun. In the same event that wiped out the forests, it is thought that many other animals went extinct. This left a large supply of food open for the remaining species, including hippos, who grew large in size because of it.
Whales, dolphins, porpoises, and hippos share a common ancestor which diverged around 54 million years ago. It was believed for a long time that hippos were related to pigs, this hypothesis largely coming from studying the shapes of both molars. This common line of thought was dismissed after studies of DNA and blood patterns were made and more of the fossil record was discovered. We know that whales are evolved from land-dwelling animals which may have resembled smaller and skinnier hippos. As science advances, so does our understanding of extinct and present day animals.
In the past, hippos have lived across Africa and Europe. On several Mediterranean islands and Madagascar, hippos experienced insular dwarfism, the phenomenon that a species grows smaller when living on an island to accomadate for the limits of food and space. Most dwarf hippos were hunted or died when the climate became cooler. On Madagascar, though, small populations of Malagasy hippos could still be alive. In 1976, locals have described a small animal living around their village who could be a Malagasy hippo.
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